Happiness in the Classroom

(c) Leslie Fandrich's Happy Mighty Party Photos

It's August, and my attention is beginning to drift back to school. This happens every year. In June, I can't wait to get out of my classroom, to return to my home and family, to the tasks and responsibilities that have eluded me all year. And then, right around August 1, I can't wait to return to my students; my other family, my other home.

Last week, I returned to my classroom to consider what needs to be done before school starts.

The answer: Yikes. A lot.

I have been at this teaching thing for a while now. I know what I have to do to prepare for the new school year from an academic perspective, but I want to do something new this year, something that makes my classroom a welcoming and supportive place to learn. I considered new posters, bulletin boards, organizational schemes - all the usual teacher tricks. Those help - they certainly give my students something to look at when their attention wanders - but they are not enough. They are not what make my classroom a home, and that's what I want to give my students this year.

(c) Leslie Fandrich's Happy Mighty Party Photos

And then, thanks to the confluence of the stars and some kind friends, I found myself on a glorious terrace in New York City, celebrating the release of Gretchen Rubin's new book, Happier at Home. It's the follow-up to her massively huge New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. I read The Happiness Project a long time ago and loved it, even before I found out that I have friends in common with Gretchen. As far as I knew, her book was just another nonfiction bestseller blurbed by A.J. Jacobs, and if it's blurbed by A.J., it's good enough for me.

Gretchen's books chronicle her efforts to be happier in her life, and about halfway through Happier at Home, I realized that most of her ideas translate beautifully to the classroom. Gretchen has become a hero to millions of readers, the inspiration for countless personal happiness projects taking place across the country. All I know is that she's a lovely woman whose ideas have managed to touch more readers than I can imagine...including my mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law, Kate, was thrilled when she found out I had attended Gretchen's launch party. She revealed that she keeps 18 of Gretchen's best "Happiness" hints (the chapter headings) in her desk as inspiration.

I told Kate I was thinking about taking Gretchen's tips into my middle school classroom, and asked her to distill her list down to five of her favorite tips. She went through her 18 cards and come up with:

1. Be yourself.
2. Act the way you want to feel.
3. Remember to be grateful.
4. Forget about results.
5. Ask for help.

These are just perfect. Five rules for inspiring happiness in my students and five rules for maintaining my own happiness in the classroom. Here, in the order Kate read them to me over the phone, are my goals for the 2012-2013 school year:

1. Be yourself. Students respond to authenticity. When I love what I am teaching them, they love what I am teaching them. Okay - not always, but most of the time. Students know when their teachers are engaged, comfortable in our skins, and authentically themselves. When we fake enthusiasm, or affection, or authority, they know. They always know.

2. Act the way you want to feel. Yes. I know I just said that teachers have to be honest, but come on. We all have those days. While I love my job, and am excited to go to work nearly every day, there are days that are hard. I am human, but even when I feel tired, sad, angry, or frustrated, I still have to stand up in front of class and be my best self. I hate the term, "fake it 'till you make it," but there's some truth there. If I act happy and enthusiastic about my lessons, I can keep the momentum rolling just long enough for a student to get happy and enthusiastic, and that's all it takes. The ball is rolling, and inertia takes over. The way I want to feel becomes the way I feel. Works every time.

3. Remember to be grateful. I am so appreciative of this tip. I know, Oprah, Christianity, Buddhism, whatever - it may be trite, it's still relevant. My favorite moment of the week is our middle school meeting on Wednesday morning. We make time for "compliments" at the beginning, and the students never fail to amaze me with the moments they recognize and make public to their classmates. "I'd like to compliment Mary because she notices when someone is down," or "I'd like to compliment John because he held the door for me today when my books were falling out of my hands," or "I'd like to compliment Mrs. Smith because she noticed the class was stressed out and she reduced our homework load." It's a magical time for me, and every week, I know I will have a few moments to remember why I love my students and my job.

4. Forget about results. I am frustrated by the importance placed on grades in my classroom, and every year, I attempt to create a focus on the process of learning rather than the results. More often than not, it falls flat, but sometimes, it sinks in. I taught one girl who resisted this message for three years, and in her last months of eighth grade, she made sure to let me she'd been listening. She's still acutely aware of her results, but she also understands that her journey is about letting go and enjoying the ride. That's all I can hope for, I suppose, and I am proud of her realization. My students are a work in progress, so my concession to the process is that I can't expect finished, polished works of art. They are masterpieces, but like Michaelangelo's "Unfinished Slaves," they are emerging masterpieces, and not of my design. They will have their own stories to tell.

5. Ask for help. I am stubborn. So stubborn. I don't like asking for help, because I'd rather spend hours looking for the answers myself than admit that I don't know something. However, this past year, I have opened myself up to the idea that my colleagues have a lot of expertise and information to give, and all I have to do is ask. I admitted to my math phobia and asked my colleague, Alison Gorman, for lessons in Algebra I. I stopped bluffing when it came to the holes in my knowledge of history and asked my colleague, history teacher extraordinnaire Peter Tenney, to help me fill in the gaps. You know what? They were flattered and honored to be asked, and our work relationship is stronger for the request. Best of all, my students have watched me ask for help, watched me admit to my weaknesses. Too often, teachers want to be seen as infallible, but the sooner I can disabuse my students of this notion, the better. We all need help, we all need support, and I am grateful to be reminded of this fact.

So thank you, Gretchen, for reminding me of this. For reminding me how to be happier in my classroom. Because when those first students wander in on August 31, it no longer a classroom. It is my home.

(c) Sheri Silver, www.sherisilver.com